This is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but I have struggled to articulate my thoughts until recently. I believe that our world is currently going through one of the loneliest seasons in human history and therefore the topic of loneliness is more relevant than ever before. The global pandemic is stripping away many of the social supports that people have depended upon. It’s driving people into isolation and disconnectedness. And whenever I ask people about how they’re doing, loneliness seems to be the strongest emotion that surfaces.
Loneliness is such a universal experience. In his book Together, an incredible book about the power of human connection, author and former US Surgeon General Vivek Murphy describes 3 circles of loneliness. He writes:
“Intimate, or emotional, loneliness is the longing for a close confidante or intimate partner—someone with whom you share a deep, mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational, or social, loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests.”-Vivek H. Murphy
Murphy’s theory is that if even one of these circles of connection is missing, we feel lonely. This perspective makes so much sense to me. It explains why someone can be happily married, but feel lonely because they don’t have quality friendships. Or someone else can have close friendships, but feel lonely due to a lack of community.
I believe that it’s even possible to be lonely while with other people. In fact, I think that this is the most painful type of loneliness. It’s possible to feel lonely in a crowd, lonely while with friends, and even lonely in a marriage. We are wired for connection— to know and be known. However, since we live in a fallen world, our connection with others is riddled with misunderstandings. We regularly miss each other’s hearts and even our best moments of connection fall short of the perfect intimacy God designed us for.
As a result we’re lonely.
However, I’ve noticed that we often avoid admitting our loneliness. In his book The Restless Heart, Ronald Rolheiser describes this phenomenon.
“Most of us are reluctant to admit our loneliness even to ourselves. All of us tend to have a congenital need to deny that we experience loneliness and that it is, in some way, responsible for many of our feelings, actions, and pursuits… We admit that we are lonely only with feelings of shame and weakness. Also, most of us feel that loneliness is not something that should affect normal, healthy persons.”-Ronald Rolheiser
We tend to dance around the word “loneliness”, saying that we feel “sad”, “disconnected”, and “confused”. But I think that at the core, many of us feel just plain lonely. However, I think that there’s a social stigma around loneliness that keeps us from admitting this to ourselves and to others.
I believe that naming our loneliness and facing it head on is what limits its power over us. Loneliness can be a destructive force in our lives. But it also can be used by the Lord in beautiful ways if we’ll let Him. I want to share some strategies God has taught me for navigating loneliness when it pops up in my life.
Honesty with God: We never have to pretend with God. He knows our feelings and emotions before we even know them ourselves. When I feel lonely, I will simply tell God, “I feel lonely right now.” And the best part is that Jesus understands. We have a High Priest who understands our weakness. On the cross, Jesus took upon Himself all the loneliness in the world. When He said, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus experienced the deepest possible loneliness— separation from the Father. He understand loneliness in a way that no one else can.
Refusing distraction and busyness: When I feel lonely, I tend to throw myself into a flurry of activity and distraction. I try to have every weeknight scheduled and I make plans for a busy weekend. However, when I notice myself becoming flurried and frenetic, I need to slow down and ask God several questions: Am I feeling lonely? Did you ask me to do these things? Or am I just avoiding being alone? If I realize that loneliness is the root, I need to take that to Jesus and ask Him to fill my loneliness.
Pursuing intimacy with Jesus: This is by far the most important step. if we don’t look to Jesus first, then we will look to others to fill our emptiness. This puts a pressure on our relationships that they weren’t intended to bear. When I feel alone, the thing my heart needs most is quality time with Jesus. He knows us in a way that no human being can. Psalm 139 beautifully illustrates this truth. It reads:
“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.Psalm 139:1-4
Prioritizing relationships and community: Not only does God bless us with His presence, but He also invites us into the blessing of community. It is a beautiful gift to have tangible people in the flesh to walk beside us in life. When I used to feel lonely, I would isolate myself even more from people. However, this past year, God has been teaching me to reach out. I can spend time with my roommates, I can call a friend or a family member, or I can be intentional with my church community. Loneliness is a reminder that we need one another and aren’t meant to walk through life alone. Our loneliness can propel us into deeper connection with the people in our lives.
Noticing others who are lonely: I believe that the most painful experiences in our lives can be transformed into gifts when we allow God to use them. Seasons of loneliness increase our sensitivity and empathy for others who feel lonely. When I feel lonely, I ask myself, “What can I do to lessen someone else’s loneliness right now?” In times of loneliness, it’s so easy to get lost in ourselves and in self-absorption. However, God invites us to look out and see the people around us, to make them feel noticed and cared about.
God can transform our loneliness into a deeper understanding, compassion, and empathy for others.
And that is a beautiful thing.